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Monday, September 17, 2012

City by the Bytes: San Francisco According to Video Games

Posted By on Mon, Sep 17, 2012 at 12:07 PM


When I moved from Fresno to San Francisco in 1994, it was for all the usual reasons: To go to college, to start a new life, to discover who I really was, yadda yadda. And, of course, to finally live in a city which I'd seen so often in movies and television -- and video games. (Fresno has not been so well-represented in popular culture.) What are some of those games set in San Francisco, you may ask? Go ahead, ask and I'll tell you.

I should mention that my gaming these days is mostly via emulating '80s games on MAME, and I also buy up every retro arcade pack that shows up for iOS, like Atari's Greatest Hits and Activision Anthology. The closest I've come to playing a console game over the past decade is the occasional round of Rock Band at a friend's house.

In other words, I am uniquely unqualified to discuss the majority of these newer games, having never played them or anything like them. Heck, I even rooted for Roger Ebert during that whole foofaraw some years back, and enjoy how upset people still get about his dismissive attitude toward video games. I will also ignore the San Francisco Rush and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? series for no appreciable reason. So, let's get on with it!

Tex Murphy: The Pandora Directive (1996)

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Part of a series of five Tex Murphy PC games between 1989 and 1998, The Pandora Directive ain't a game -- it's an interactive movie, which was vogue at the time. It's directed by the supervising editor of the underrated Quigley Down Under, it stars nobody you've ever heard of as Tex Murphy, and co-stars Joe Dante stalwart Kevin McCarthy, which alone makes it worth a watch. Or a play. However that works. And it includes an original song by Richie Havens, who also needed work at the time.

The Tex Murphy series is set in a futuristic, post-war San Francisco in which "ordinary humans co-exist with mutants." (Just like 2012, amirite? Zing!). The skyline is still lovely at night, though.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

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While all the Tex Murphy games are set in San Francisco, the City is just one of the locales of this entry in the mildly controversial series. San Francisco is called San Fierro, and California itself is the San Andreas of the title. I guess Rockstar changed the names so the governments wouldn't sue.

This driving tour takes us through neighborhoods representing the Castro (referred to as "Queens" because of the gays), Haight-Ashbury ("Hashbury" because of the stinky hippies and their drugs), the Sunset District ("Ocean Flats" because it is horizontal and near water), and ... hey, wait, the Sunset District? That's where I live! My neighborhood is in a video game! That never happened while I was living in Fresno.

Tell ya what, though: If they did one that included Fresno called Grand Theft Auto: Ash Tree, I would buy it. I may or may not buy a machine to play it in, but I'd buy the game.

Vette! (1989)

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This driving game features less spiffy graphics (and far less sex and violence) than the Grand Theft Auto series, but it features a San Francisco that's actually called San Francisco, and is more or less geographically accurate. And, hey, there's the Sunset District again! It doesn't look a darn thing like 48th and Wanona, but that's hardly the point.

Now, I recognize that liberties must be taken in all forms of entertainment where driving is concerned -- in movies, people always find parking right out in front of where they're going, stuff like that. Likewise, driving games necessarily take liberties with the realities of driving in San Francisco in order to make it entertaining, but still I'd love to see one of these in which all the streets are torn up from construction, where you can't go two blocks without encountering a street that's blocked off or narrowed down to a single lane. That's the real San Francisco driving experience.

Dirty Harry (1990)

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If Vette!'s Sunset District isn't strictly accurate, I think we can reasonably assume that Dirty Harry doesn't even try to look like what the back of the box calls the "streets, sewers, and dockyards of San Francisco." Instead, it looks like the generic city of a million side-scrolling punch-'em-up Nintendo games. This is the kind of thing that pretty much weaned me off of video games in the early 1990s. For a while I used to think it was just a sign that I was getting older -- I was entering my twenties, after all -- but, nope. I just had no taste for this kind of game. I didn't mind the violence. I minded the boringness. (And I'm speaking as someone who spent many, many hours playing E.T. on the Atari 2600.)

I think we can also reasonably assume that Harry Callahan would never dress quite so post-Miami Vice. The one thing the game does get right is the room full of snakes at 6:14. It's about time someone addressed the snake infestation in this town!

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Sherilyn Connelly


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